the trouble with labels

At what point do labels cease to help us understand ourselves better, and become limiting factors, excuses that we resort to when we don't want to do the work it takes to succeed in any endeavour?

the trouble with labels
Photo by Sneha Chekuri on Unsplash

I was listening to an author coaching session yesterday and one of the attendees said that four of her top 5 Clifton Strengths were in the thinking domain, which ideally means she's likely to need more time to think about her stories before being able to write them down.

But, she went on to add, she publishes and releases a book every 6 weeks!

She also said that this was the reason she has been resisting trying to find out more about her Strengths and how they apply to her as a writer, because she fears she'll only hear about all the ways people with top 5 Strengths primarily in the thinking domain aren't really equipped to write fast and publish fast.

I was flabbergasted when I heard this.

Among my top 5 Strengths, 2 are in the thinking domain, but 2 are in the executing domain. And yet, I'm unable to achieve the kind of productivity I dream of!

In fact, when I found out my top 10 Strengths and saw that 50% of them were in the thinking domain, I used that as a perfect excuse to tell myself things like, "Oh, I need more time to think before I write. This is my Intellection needing thinking time. This is my Input needing TV time or reading time."

How do we tell the difference between when it's a particular trait actually showing up and when it's something our fear-based brain is using as an excuse?

A friend of mine — who is a general physician and whose child went to the same school as D — once told me how some of her relatives were quick to label her child as 'shy'.

"It's not good for children to hear these labels about themselves," my friend said to me, "because then they start using these labels as excuses to not try out something new."

For instance, a child repeatedly referred to as 'shy' could end up thinking "Oh, I can't make new friends because I'm shy."

Doesn't that sound eerily similar to "Oh, I can't write 1000 words everyday because my strategic thinking Strengths need time to think!"?

child hiding between her mother's legs
Photo by Tamara Govedarovic on Unsplash

In response to the attendee's question, the author coach said that when they talk about how people with certain Strengths behave, they're talking about the 'norm'.

Or, she added, perhaps it was likely that the attendee was already subconsciously using her top Strengths at their optimum levels, which was leading her to exhibit high productivity.

In a long-ago Statistics class I took while pursuing an MBA degree several years ago, the professor showed us a sequence of dots of different colours and asked us if we could decipher a pattern.

Many of us came up with different answers.

The professor then revealed that it had been an entirely random sequence, and that human beings have a tendency to imagine patterns where there are none!

everything is unknown
Bowing down to the mystery that governs all of life, no matter how much we try to codify the inexplicable.

Labels can help us understand ourselves. For instance, I have come across people heaving huge sighs of relief when they figured out they had ADD or ADHD. "That explains why I behave like that!"

At what point then do these labels — anxious, depressive, shy, outgoing, ADD, ADHD, extrovert, introvert, geek, jock, night owl, morning person, and so on and so forth — cease to be instruments of enlightenment, helping us understand ourselves better, and become limiting definitions, excuses that we resort to when faced with the discomfort of doing something new or different or challenging?

At what point did my strategic thinking Clifton Strengths become more than labels and started limiting me in the ways I showed up (or didn't) at the writing desk?

The one pattern I recognize in myself is my inability to face the discomfort and do the work when it gets tough.

Maybe, this is just something that shows up because it's a very human tendency to do so, and I've become good at catching myself when I'm shirking work because of some anxiety related to it versus when I'm not doing it because I'm bored or tired or sleepy or have something else to do.

Other than this, do we really have a pattern?

I don't know.

When there are external deadlines, all patterns go out of the window! I've been able to work just as well late in the night as early in the morning. I've also made excuses about why I can't work in the morning as well as for why I can't work in the night.

What does all this mean then? That if I'm not getting to the writing desk, it is not because of a pattern or an inherent trait but the simple, undeniable fear of failure, of my unwillingness to face the fact that the outcome of my efforts may pale tremendously in reality compared with the fantasy I've built in my head?

The author coach, to give her credit, said that people with high thinking Strengths may do well to follow Mel Robbin's 5-second rule.

... in any area of life that you want to change, any — there's one fact that you need to know.
You are never going to feel like it. Ever.
What's interesting about being an adult is that when you are eighteen nobody tells you that it's now going to be your job to parent yourself. And 'by parent yourself', I mean it's your job to make yourself do the crap you don't want to do, so you can be everything you're supposed to be. And you're so damn busy waiting to feel like it. And you're never going to.
It's very, very simple to get what you want. But it's not easy.
You have to force yourself. Anything that's a break from your routine is going to require force.
~ Mel Robbins in her TEDx talk, How to stop screwing yourself over

She goes on to explain that the instant you have an idea or an impulse, within the next five seconds we ought to 'marry it' with something physical.

For instance, feel like talking to that person over there? Start walking towards them within 5 seconds of having that thought. That's how you'd follow through on your ideas and impulses, without letting your fear brain stop you in your tracks before you've even had a chance of doing something about that brilliant idea of yours.

So ... what does this mean for me? For us?

I think it's high time I stopped looking for that silver bullet, which I was still looking for in the form of Strengths, get out of my own head and keep writing those words and publishing those books and sending out those stories.

There is no course or workshop I can take, no talk I can listen to, no newsletter I can read that will help me achieve success in my writing, unless I'm writing and practising and writing some more in the first place.

An old friend from university suddenly reached out over the weekend. Turns out his oldest daughter is into writing and he asked me if I could give her some pointers.

I told him with great sincerity that there's only two things she needs to do: Keep reading, and keep writing.

High time I took my own advice, isn't it?